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The Social Game Craze

Social gaming is huge on Facebook and beyond. Now it’s big money, too. We look at the culture and business of social gaming.

Social Games

Social Games - Farmville site detail.

We all remember connecting with friends over a game of cards, Parcheesi or Monopoly. These days, games are more popular than ever—but increasingly they’re virtual and played on Facebook.

In the game “Farmville,” cartoon characters raise barns and harvest virtual crops. In “Sorority Life,” players collect housemates and buy the latest fashions.

And while they’re free to play, the small fraction of serious players who pony up cash for coveted virtual goods means the business of social games is booming.

This Hour, On Point: The big business and mass appeal of social games.


Nick Wingfield, technology reporter for the Wall Street Journal. His July 30 article  on virtual goods is “First, Give Away the Game.”

Mia Consalvo, visiting associate professor in Comparative Media Studies at MIT’s GAMBIT Game Lab. She studies digital and casual games, new media, and women’s gameplay and is writing a book about Japan’s role in the gaming industry.

Frank Lantz, creative director and co-founder of Area Code, which creates social games for Facebook and other media platforms. He is also director of the NYU Game Center.

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  • gemli

    Games are fine, but online social gaming is not about the game. It’s about finding yet another excuse to use the Internet as a money extraction device. This new business model seeks to nickle and dime consumers for every click of the mouse, as long as there’s a ruse, a ploy, an angle, or some other pretense to lure people into clicking.

    When I played Sim City on my PC 20 years ago, it really was about the game. You bought it once, and you played it. Period. Now we have to wade into a social network, which exists only to extract personal information and monitor buying behavior and shopping preferences, gauging your consumer weaknesses, all the better to target you for the ad machine. Now we’re all “targets.” There is a game being played all right, but we’re the ones in the cross-hairs.

  • http://bruceguindon.com bruce guindon

    Why would anyone with half a mind want to be involved in a social game, is it because their world and life is so boring that it’s just an escape and as you point out a way someone else can capitalize on another person loneliness, just an opinion, social games suck

  • Sam E.

    This is dispicable that OnPoint but since its being brought up anyone want to help plant my fields or wack someone for me ;)

  • Sam E.

    @Bruce; I don’t understand the appeal of the games either. That said I’ve known several people who play these game who in my estimation were perfectlly well adjusted and who had interesting lives, including at least two of my college professors who were semi-obessed one of whom worked full time outside of the school, had a family, and taught several classes.

  • Mike Robinson

    I suspect that this thing which we now call “‘social’ networking” is simply the tip of something much bigger. If we don’t see “what is the appeal of it,” it may well be “because we do not see the whole elephant.”

    These networks allow anyone to participate, at no cost to them, and for whatever reasons THEY might have. It allows anyone to be a part of an a truly international “group,” to whatever extent THEY choose to be. People are naturally very social, and they “form groups” to do almost every thing they do, including business. But there’s never before been “a way to form groups,” that’s quite like this.

    “The Internet is surprising us all,” all over again. We might try to guess where it’s going, but we are still going to be surprised.

  • Rob Grant

    Online games are a hobbie no different than bowling. Given the reduction of free time people have these days with work, commutes and family it is no wonder they are growing.

  • Steve

    The tragic irony of Farmville is that it deals in agriculture, hard work, and a sort of virtual ecology but requires that participants become sedentary in order to be successful.

  • John

    “Optimizing your schedule”? This is the biggest waste of time!

  • John

    Another reason the obesity level is soaring.

  • elaine

    Farmville, to me is another way we are distincing ourselves from our food and our fiber. As a REAL farmer this game scares me because it is so incorrect. You have to wait years for productivity from fruit trees, people don’t understand where their food comes from and this only adds to the problem.

  • Erin in Salt Lake City

    As a not-quite-thirtysomething woman, I’m a little insulted by social games. Lord help me, I tried back when “Li’l Green Patch” was the biggest thing going, and it was obnoxious. I was particularly annoyed at the overwhelming focus on sororities, poodle grooming, babysitting, and other things women are (apparently) supposed to find fascinating.

    I have to commend the genius of the business model, though: apps scam users out of real money for imaginary goods, and encourage users to spam their friends — so the developer doesn’t have to.

  • Mari

    “Why would anyone with half a mind want to be involved in a social game, is it because their world and life is so boring that it’s just an escape and as you point out a way someone else can capitalize on another person loneliness?”- Bruce

    I think it’s both a diversion from real life woes and a way for aggressive/competitive types to capitalize on the loneliness and disconnection that most Americans experience these days.

    Let’s face it: why would somebody “plant” virtual crops and spend hours each day pursuing an addictive, “gambling-lite” game with no clear winners? Because it’s all that’s left for them to do. Incredibly depressing when one sees that planting and sharing REAL crops is what folks actually want to do with their empty time.

    Only the very well-off can afford to play “farmville” for real, and they hire cheap laborers to do the dirty work while sharing nothing of the harvest with others. Please don’t mind me when I say: neo-feudalism sucks, both on-line and in reality.

  • David Richards

    Multi-player online games are appealing to many players because they offer a LEVEL PLAYING FIELD. The rules are clear, and honestly enforced. There is no corruption. There are no special interest groups that have an unfair advantage. These games offer us something we are all yearning for in real life: an honest economy where people succeed or fail based on their efforts alone.

    If games such as World of Warcraft or Farmville were to give a special advantage to a privileged, elite group of players, my sense is that participation would drop off dramatically. I certainly would have no enthusiasm to play a corrupt game where I was a member of a disadvantaged group.

  • http://www.iamdark.com Jeanette Michelle

    I don’t partake in the social games because they’re rather pointless. I play video games (xbox, ps2 and ps3). If I do partake in a game on the regular PC it’s not social – and I’m over the 40 mark (female) and I occassionaly play games to take a break away from what I do.

    It’s fine to play games, but when you start playing social games, that person is usually lonley or don’t have anything to occupy their time. And to play spending your own money is not the way to go with this economy.

  • Shava Nerad

    If everyone who watched National Geographic specials traveled to wilderness and tromped around, there’d be no wilderness. Not everyone can travel. Not everyone can have greenspace available. Not everyone can farm or raise animals. Not everyone can keep pets.

    Online virtual life is the next phase of urbanization — packing more people into less space, with less “footprint” each.

    Social games give people a fantasy release for traditional cultural needs for community and greenspace and such.

  • Mike Robinson

    (Adding to my previous post …)

    People have been paying money to play games since the pinball machine. Some video games started on “Free Play” but required you to drop a quarter to CONTINUE playing, or to enter advanced levels.

    “Gaming” is a tip of a bigger iceberg. It’s natural that people’s social interactions would feature “games.” They always do. People are not drawn here “to play games.” But, having been drawn to this gathering-place, they do “play.”

  • Sara


    Oh Elaine, lighten up. I am a farmer too (beef, hay, poultry) and I love farmville. Nothing dies, your crops always grow– you get chocolate milk from brown cows! How charming! I shovel manure and dig my share of postholes, so it’s nice to have a place where I can harvest a cow by clicking on it instead of trying to get convince a big mean steer to load into the trailer.

  • Mari

    “Social games give people a fantasy release for traditional cultural needs for community and greenspace and such.” – Shava

    I agree. As somebody who was raised in a rural environment, where we cultivated produce gardens and had pets, this new, green-free, virtual wasteland feels more like a cruel gulag than a “fantasy release” to me. Guess it’s just my grief talking. I miss the natural world something fierce. I’ve tried, but can’t get into the artificial space, yet. It just feels so vacant and desolate to me.

  • Erin

    I am worried about how our brain is being rewired to think that we are achieving something by playing these games. Instead of spending hours online go visit a real friend, go on a real date, plant a real garden or even just use a real pack of cards! Also, these are
    short term achievements. What you accomplish in these games is not going to enhance
    your life in a long-term way. I advocate real life in place of
    these games.

  • Dan

    As a competition junkie who would prefer all aspects of life to be scored or graded, social games provide constant opportunity without risk of ” heat of the moment” aggressiveness. Leaderboards and posted scores allow for a measurement of ability against others.

  • Chris Cooper

    In regard to Facebook Gaming being something you do alone, my friends and I play the games on Facebook, and talk to each other at the same time on Twitter. Facebook is also making the world a little smaller, as we have friends all over the world that we talk with via Facebook Chat.

  • Stephanie E

    I feel that the people who play these games want to be part of Facebook but can’t figure out how to interact on it so they play games rather than comment to their friends. I have hidden the ones who continually play the games. I only want to read things from people who are doing and thinking. Reading others posts is such a great way to expand your horizons if your friends are active individuals.

  • http://ncpr.org stillin

    The entire computer world be it games, farmville, fb all leaves me thinking it’s the downfall of an empire for real. What kind of people do those activites produce? BORING. Nothing real going on. I just see it as bad as television but more addictive. I have “good friends” who live 3 miles away who want to do facebook, a good friend who is playing farmville all day inbetween work and family. I just really cannot justify a life on earth with that as how time is spent…I believe if we aren’t more conscious, we will stay the nation of fat, boring Americans who live to be entertained. I am not one.

  • Mari

    “Reading others posts is such a great way to expand your horizons if your friends are active individuals.”-Posted by Stephanie E.

    I agree with Stephanie that Facebook, itself, can be a great social tool for expansive thinkers. The game-posts by “friends”, without any personal commentary, are a creepy annoyance when I’m seeking to communicate with REAL friends. I have sought to block them, too, so far without much luck.

  • Steve T

    A great way to mind numb the world. The absurdity of thees games leaves me speechless. You call this junk social interaction?

    Is there anybody left in the world that can have an hour long conversation, with out having to make or receive or send a call or text message?

    Not one over 10 nor one under 65. And we still have a communication problem, what a world.

  • http://silverimagelimited.com Alexander Thompson

    There seem to be nine pro’s for every con in your discussion. The biggest loss to the user of online games is exactly, socializing. Computers are NOT a social activity. They are a solitary pursuit.
    I am happily included now in a large extended family of my girlfreind, none of whom own televisions, and all of whom have regular game nights. So also with their church, who hosts gaming sessions regularly as well. We laugh, and jibe and jostle, we scheme and strategize and have a real together experience. It is NOT something which can be supplanted with some 72kb widget and five consecutive hours alone in a chair!

  • http://cyberfumes.blogspot.com Dave Eger

    It’s not just about how much money they take, but how much time. Over a time span of three years that I played World of Warcraft, I spent over half a years time in game, so basically I gave 1/6 of my time to a machine. Of course I have regrets, but I will say that as someone with an interest in anthropology, being able to see how groups humans interact through the lens of a virtual world of diverse possibilities was pretty fascinating. The intensity of a game against other people live is huge adrenaline rush that’s hard to find anywhere else except for very physically demanding sports. It was really hard for me to quit and move on with my life, but I’m very glad that I did. To do it, I had to sever all ties with everyone I really enjoyed playing with in the game (which was aided by that fact that many of them were quitting too) and played alone, which is a lot less fun, until I was completely sick of the game and wanted nothing to do with it anymore.


    What a waste of time playing FB games like Farmville, Cafe World, Mafia Wars or Poker.

    I rather sleep and drink alot of water so I look more younger and healthy rather wasting my time on those games.

    I RATHER play Play stations games faster,better graphics and fun. I don’t have to buy Gifts to send to my other co-players

    Buying? Yes by using credit cards or pay pal.

    OH PLEASE!!!!

  • http://www.theplaychannel.com ThePlayChannel Games

    The games are fun, but shallow. If you want to see a game that makes your brain really work, try Word War III. It will be opening up on Impulse in few days. It is made by few guys at the PlayChannel. Warning – the game is not for the faint-minded …

  • Michelle Aubrecht

    I think if you want to know what social gaming could be about – check out area code’s power planet on facebook. It does not make you buy anything and it’s so fun! The social part is in seeing what other people will do with your game world after it is passed on to the next player. I’m really tempted to stay up until the last minute (which will be 4 a.m. and I probably won’t do that, but…) Anyway, at 4 a.m. I loose control of my game and get someone elses. It is sponsored by Shell and the Science Channel. But someone has to pay the game-maker.

  • Joshua Hendrickson

    I avoid social gaming out of personal disinterest; I would rather read or write than farm virtual crops.

    I doubt if all social gamers have boring lives; one of my best friends plays Farmville a lot, and he’s an EMT.

    I will never for the life of me understand the appeal of “virtual” this or that. Is it somehow an appeal to the imagination? If so, then no wonder I disdain it; books are infinitely superior in engaging the imaginative faculties.

    Also, the emphasis on business models and economies (not to mention spending real $ on virtual stuff) really turns me off. It just reminds me that “the business of America is business” and thereby saddens me.

    By the way, this is not a generation divide issue for me. I was raised with arcade games and home consoles from Atari onward, and I surely loved video games as a child. My intellect just requires more stimulation, that’s all.

  • Pat Lagodney

    Social and Casual gaming worry me as a long time and hardcore gamer. The masses that populate these games can provide more money to a company than even the most dedicated fanbase to a traditionally produced game could ever hope of doing. Business is business, naturally, and companies will naturally gravitate to where the money is. I and many other people who grew up in the Golden and Silver ages of gaming are not where the money is, despite us buying more traditional games than nearly any demographic. When all the traditional game companies are able to tap into the market for casual and social games in the next console generation, what’s going to happen to me? Nintendo, a pillar of the traditional game market has already entered the casual market and is now only giving passing lip service to the gamers who got them there.

    That’s fine, really, money is money. The thing that really and truly worries me about casual and social gaming is that it is a fad. When the other big players in the traditional game market get to the proverbial party, I fear that it will already be over. As the traditional gaming companies scramble to deal with the loss, I as a hardcore gamer will be left high and dry. I may be doomsaying, but I fear 1983 all over again.

  • http://KlickNation.com Prince

    I work for Klicknation and its the best job i have ever had! We make games that we love not only to make but that we ourselves love to play. SUPER HERO CITY and AGE of CHAMPIONS are for people who love social games and enjoy what they bring to your life! Btw our demographic is male between the ages of 29-51, so these are not just women playing facebook games!

  • Boon

    Most if not all teens use Facebook to play games. It seems like that’s the only way they connect. I’d prefer to have a social Web site just dedicated to connect people based on just college, and/or high school affiliations. It’s unfortunate that FB opens up its membership to all (including my grade 1 students who use it to play games). That scares some teachers who use Facebook to connect to each other. We are scared that we might reveal parts of our personal lives that we don’t want to share with our young charges.

  • http://mygamermom.com/ Patty

    It doesn’t matter if it’s casual or hardcore gaming it’s just about having fun. It’s not a growing social problem, it’s not a new evil warping the minds of children it’s just the latest thing. As it became easier for people to use the internet and connect with each other it makes sense they would play together. Similar online connections changed console gaming too. I would like to also point out that with every new form of mass entertainment there have been many people to jump up and proclaim it is evil and I think it’s gaming’s turn now. So take a deep breath and go play

  • Edward G. Mair

    I am unemployed and have the time to play FV. It allows me to create a fantasy world, yes, but I know it is and I still read, garden, walk on the beach etc.. It allows me daily contact with friends (real not just virtual) to keep my spirits up. It is addictive. It could be considered a waste of time. However, making money just for the sake of making money for oneself without contributing to one’s community is also addictive and a waste of a life I would think. If one is too busy to spend time with one’s spouse or children there is a problem there too.

  • Dana Franchitto

    THis is all about marketing. this hour was a long commercial pretending to be “sociology”. Where is the public in “public” radio?

  • Jill

    I don’t understand why both guests are pro-social gamers. Obviously, the wise host has better things to do with her life than play these stupid games. She is the only one saying how they could be potentially destructive. Why just get a couple of tools as guests? How is it even possible to say that these games are not replacing real social interaction? I don’t believe that for a second!!! I can’t even talk to most of my friends on the phone anymore it’s all text, text, text. Then, when we get together everyone has got one hand clutched to their cell phones. This change in behavior has been only in the last five years. I can’t imagine what the next generation will be like. Everyone is so complaisant about the whole thing, it’s disgusting. Open your eyes people!

  • Daniel

    What a poorly-produced program! None of the guests had answers to basic questions about the number of people who play these casual games, the basic demographics of social gamers, and so on and so forth.

    The producers chose several know-nothing guests who had nothing but anecdotal “lots of people play these games” commentary. The WSJ reporter kept talking about big money in social games, but he couldn’t identify basic industry revenues.

    It’s a sad state of affairs that a show such as On Point cannot find someone from the media industry who researches social gaming (perhaps a media measurement company such as Nielsen, ComScore, or Boston’s own Compete). If this is big business, then where’s the money? Is it advertising? or purchasing (virtual) pink tractors?

    There are people who would have made far better guests than the ones On Point had. Next time On Point producers pull a quote that makes the assertion that something is on the scale of prime-time television, they should find a guest who can actually talk to the point as opposed to speaking in vague anecdotes.

  • Ed

    I’ve been playing a different social game for quite a while. It engages players in a virtual democracy with elections and in-game powers for the people in various political positions.

    One of the most interesting things about it is the economy module, which is obviously not anywhere near as sophisticated as the real economy. However elected governments must contend with printing currency, inflation, spending, taxes, budgets etc. Mismanagement has led many of these virtual economies off the cliff, yet when really economically conscious people manage to rise in politics, they can maintain a stable and growth-oriented economy.

    I’ve seen people playing this game forced to make very hard choices and eventually making more mature and careful decisions. It’s all play money, but what matters is that your friends are all involved in the same virtual country. It’s a social game with consequences.

    I believe as games like this (called erepublik.com) increase, more and more situations like this will increase and we will learn to be citizens (among other things) through social games.

  • Ed

    And another thing . . .

    Game designers deserve to be paid. If people don’t want to pay, but they’re offered the game for free, that their decision – it’s a free market.

    However, designers are craftsmen as well as anybody else. If they’re going to design things that people enjoy, then they need to be paid. I’ve never paid for anything on a social game, but I think the stigma should go somewhat the other way. People should feel good about paying, rather than playing for free. Just like musicians and painters and writers should be paid for their craft.

  • Xxxx

    erepublik is just another money draining game. not worth to give a try even, and it produce national hates.

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